National Writing Project

Author's Corner: Students Help Teacher with First Novel

Date: June 10, 2011

Summary: Greater Houston Area Writing Project teacher-consultant Ashley Hope Perez empowered her students to read and comment on her first novel, What Can't Wait—a story that they could personally relate to.


What Can't Wait tells the story of Marisa, who is on the brink of graduating high school and must make some tough decisions. Should she stay close to her family, marry a nice boy, and get a job at the local grocery store? Or should she go off to college to study engineering at The University of Texas at Austin? Caught at the crossroads, Marisa must decide whether she has what it takes to break free and follow her dreams.

This is a story that might resonate with many high school seniors—and one that teachers witness every day. Author and teacher-consultant Ashley Hope Perez discusses how her students and the Writing Project helped her write this first novel.

NWP: What was your inspiration to write What Can't Wait?

Ashley Hope Perez: The main character Marisa isn't based on any specific student, but her story was shaped by the struggles of many of my talented and hard-working seniors in Houston. My students wanted a novel that reflected their particular challenges and that honored the difficulty of balancing family demands and personal ambition. Without everything they taught me, What Can't Wait wouldn't exist.

NWP: What is your writing process — especially since you have to write and teach?

Perez: When I started writing What Can't Wait, I would get up an hour earlier than usual to get in a chunk of writing time. I also wrote almost every day with my students in class—Marisa's college application essay in the novel is actually something my students and I worked on in our college unit back in 2006.

Now I write whenever I can catch even a few minutes—when I'm not grading my college students' writing, studying for my own PhD exams, or trying to make sure my 9-month-old little boy doesn't ingest too much cat hair.

I will say that the most important thing in terms of accomplishing a writing goal is to write every day, even if it's for a short time. During crazy times like the holidays, I set a small achievable goal like 15 minutes of writing. This isn't much, but it's enough to keep my mind in the project.

NWP: What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating this book?

Perez: The power of revision. For me, writing is really all about rewriting. I cannot express to you how horrendous my first draft was. But that doesn't matter, because once I have something with characters, a beginning, a middle, and an end, I can revise and revise and revise.

With every draft—and for What Can't Wait I think there were probably ten substantial revisions—I start typing in a new document rather than just making changes to the old file. At this point, it is sometimes surprisingly easy for me to write new scenes or rewrite ones that aren't working. I guess I thrive on the freedom that comes with having a clear purpose.

My students were the first to read and comment on the novel.

NWP: Does teaching others about writing inspire or challenge you about your own writing?

Perez: Oh, it definitely inspires me! I try to take the writing lessons I'm learning to become a better author back to my students and to practice in my own writing what I preach in class. There's a wonderful give-and-take between teaching and writing. Writing is terribly lonely sometimes, and teaching brings me back into a community of writers.

I also turn to many of the same motivational and time-management techniques that I developed working with teenagers. (Really, my writer self is very much like a teenager—always trying to get out of work, afraid of failure, and way too concerned with what everyone else will think.) In the classroom, I work hard to help my students value every minute and make it productive. When I feel tempted to get up and make a snack or otherwise distract myself from writing, I imagine my students collectively crossing their arms and raising their eyebrows.

NWP: Has your involvement with the Writing Project influenced your writing in any way?

Perez: The Writing Project transformed the way I approach writing in my classroom. For one thing, it helped me see the value of sharing my writing with my students at all stages of its development. After my summer with the Writing Project, I began to actually draft pieces of writing while we were in class. Anytime I asked my students to do silent writing, I wrote as well, usually on the overhead so that they could see what I was doing.

Also, the Writing Project helped me think of my class as a community of readers and writers. My students were the first to read and comment on the novel. This helped me immensely, and I think the experience of giving me feedback made them take others' responses to their work more seriously.

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